Many say party doesn’t matter in Naugatuck

NAUGATUCK — Jubilant Republicans watching election returns on May 2 declared their party had come back after two years of Democratic control of the borough.

“We won big, despite not having a mayoral candidate,” said former Republican mayor Ronald S. San Angelo, who won a seat as burgess.

San Angelo, along with former mayor Michael Bronko and newcomer Catherine J. Ernsky, won Republican seats on the borough board, unseating two Democratic incumbents in the process. Republicans now hold the majority of seats on the Board of Mayor and Burgesses and the Board of Education.

In the 2009 election, by contrast, Democratic Mayor Robert A. Mezzo beat Bronko, the Republican incumbent mayor, and Democrats won the maximum number of seats they were allowed on both boards.

Political activists in the borough, where nearly half of all voters are unaffiliated, said party affiliation doesn’t matter.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the candidate and how they’re viewed in the community and how much work they do during the campaign,” Mezzo said.

The mayoral primary between Bronko and San Angelo two years ago caused a rift in the Republican Party, and its newfound strength this year is due in part to its reunification behind both men as burgesses, town committee members said.

“I think that people were looking for some balance on both the Board of Mayor and Burgesses and the Board of Education,” Republican Town Committee Chairwoman Dorothy Hoff said.

Hoff asked Bronko and San Angelo if they wanted to run again for mayor this year, but both declined. Both said they thought Mezzo could have been beaten, however, and they are leaving themselves open to running again in the future.

“I don’t see people out there chanting Bob Mezzo’s name,” San Angelo said. “I think people think he’s done a respectable job, but everybody suffers when there’s no options, when there’s no choices.”

Mezzo cruised easily to a second term, which ironically could have hurt other Democratic candidates, Democratic Town Committee Chairman M. Leonard Caine said. Some Democratic voters stayed home knowing their candidate at the top of the ticket would win, he said.

“I think there weren’t any precedents set from this election, other than, when there’s no mayoral candidate the race is dull and people aren’t interested in it,” Caine said.

The unaffiliated category has the most registered voters in the borough, with 7,937, or nearly 46 percent of the total, according to the registrar’s office. Democrats number 34 percent, Republicans number nearly 19 percent and another 1 percent align themselves with other parties.

Hoff, a former burgess, said she remembers disagreeing with Republicans and agreeing with Democrats on some issues when she sat on the borough board.

“If your heart is in the right place and you communicate with people, you show respect and you do what’s right for Naugatuck, people will vote for you, regardless of political party,” Hoff said. “I can’t say in Naugatuck there’s that strict difference where Republicans are more conservative and Democrats are more liberal.”

Since the last election, four or five new members have joined the Republican Town Committee to fill in for others who have resigned, Hoff said. Committee membership is fixed at 33 members, but there are two vacancies. The Democratic Town Committee has 45 members.

The Taxpayers in Revolt group has been quiet in recent years, but Chairman Alec Wargo said the group’s activity would step up after the budget vote and when the borough’s revaluation starts later this year. Although the group’s focus on lowering taxes is aligned with the Republican Party, Democrats and unaffiliated voters are members as well, and former president David Cronin is a Democrat.

In his first term as mayor, Mezzo appointed five Democrats, four Republicans and one unaffiliated voter to boards and commissions, and the borough board appointed 11 Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated commissioners.

The charter requires vacancies on boards and commissions to be filled from the same party as the retiring member, which Mezzo said is a weakness because it does not allow for appointing unaffiliated voters. Mezzo said he does not pay attention to political party when he makes appointments.

“I don’t think the average Naugatuck citizen much cares for the internal dynamics of the local parties,” Mezzo said. “They care about their taxes, how efficiently their government’s running, whether their children are getting a good education and what we’re doing to strengthen our tax base.”